At the heart of Sarah Polley’s impressive directorial debut, Away from Her, is that luminous iconic figure of the 1960s, Julie Christie. Christie—whose most famous film is probably John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965) and whose best film is almost certainly Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968)—has a face and a look that is as quintessentially a part of the world of the British Invasion as the Beatles, David Hemmings’ photographer in Michaelangelo Antoninoni’s Blow-up (1966), Rita Tushingham’s sad smile in Lester’s The Knack … and How to Get It (1965), or Lulu singing “To Sir, with Love” in James Clavell’s To Sir, With Love (1967). That, combined with the fact that Christie looks very much as she did at the height of her career, makes Away from Her especially poignant and relevant for those of us who remember that era.
Watching Christie’s character, Fiona, fade and flicker as Alzheimer’s overtakes her is like watching the era itself pass from memory—with moments of extreme clarity refusing to disappear in the dying light. I say this not to diminish the power of Christie’s performance—which is one of the most precise and emotionally resonant I’ve seen in a very long time—but to explain the depth of the overall accomplishment. And this is something I’m bound to believe was in Polley’s mind when she adapted Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” for Christie. Consider the manner in which Fiona and Grant are married on Fiona’s spur of the moment question, “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?” That sounds and feels like a ‘60s moment. Plus, there’s the scene where Fiona—in an advanced stage of the disease—is watching TV-news footage from Iraq and wonders, “How could they forget Vietnam?”
No, the specter of the ‘60s is not accidental. The remarkable thing about this is that writer-director Polley was born in 1979. This perhaps explains the presence of the understanding and perceptive young nurse, Kristy (Kristen Thomas, The Republic of Love), who bristles when Grant (a heartbreaking Gordon Pinsent) foolishly tells her how he assumes she must feel about her aging charges. (Notice, too, the way Kristy is introduced into the film, on a note of shared interest with Grant and Fiona, on the topic of skunk lilies.)
On the surface, Away from Her bears a resemblance to Nick Cassavete’s treacly The Notebook (2004), since both films deal with husbands trying to break through the wall of lost memory with their wives, but there all similarity ends. Comparatively speaking, The Notebook is Hollywoodized soap, while Away from Her has the kind of genuine unsentimentalized, untrivialized emotion about aging I’ve only encountered in one other movie, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). Polley’s film may not quite be in the same league, but neither is it too far from it.
In essence, Away from Her is the story of a woman, Fiona, who realizes that she’s descending into Alzheimer’s and makes the conscious decision to go into a facility against the wishes of her husband, Grant. The story then follows Fiona’s growing detachment from Grant and her growing attachment to the withdrawn mute Aubrey (Michael Murphy), whose need for her seems to give her life purpose. Things become complicated when Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis showing the pain beneath her no-nonsense demeanor), removes her spouse from the facility, whereupon Grant tries to reunite Fiona and Aubrey in the hope that it will help pull Fiona out of the depression that follows Aubrey’s departure. These are the barest bones of the film, however, which addresses far more than the plot might suggest. Away from Her isn’t simple. It’s not just about Alzheimer’s or even about aging. It’s about the nature of love—in more ways than one—and what love means on something beyond a self-serving level.
It’s not a perfect film. Polley makes a few missteps in the area of structure. The scenes between Grant and Marian in Marian’s kitchen feel more essential to the plot than organic in the way they’re fitted into the film, but this is a relatively minor consideration, especially in light of the fact that Polley realizes where to end her film. Had she taken the story even 30 seconds past the point she does, Away from Her would have lost its finely achieved impact. For that, and so many other things, Polley deserves only praise. Rated PG-13 for some strong language.